Surviving, let alone thriving, in the performing arts is a daunting proposition, but Miami’s Seraphic Fire seems to have been on a fast track over the past year and a half.
Coming off two 2012 Grammy nominations, the chamber choir was picked up by the prestigious Columbia Artists Management agency, signed a recording distribution deal with the respected classical label Naxos and has landed several of its recordings on the iTunes classical charts.
Credit artistic excellence, community engagement and a savvy marketing strategy, observers say.
“It has a lot to do with the quality of the work,” says Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs. “That establishes a certain buzz or aura around the organization that people can expect extraordinary live performances. Seraphic Fire has that down.”
The choir and its instrumental companion, the Firebird Chamber Orchestra, are composed of musicians from around the country who assemble in South Florida a half-dozen times each season for a series of concerts at South Florida churches, plus Handel’s Messiah at the Arsht Center.
Since Seraphic Fire’s inception 11 years ago, “There has always been an unwavering focus on quality and innovation,” says founder and artistic director Patrick Dupree Quigley. “Good performances are not acceptable. We are shooting for great performances.”
Then there’s community engagement. In 2010, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Seraphic Fire founded the Miami Choral Academy, a free afterschool program that teaches music to 250 elementary students in poor neighborhoods in partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
“I think the organizations that are really starting to pull ahead of the others are the ones that are connecting with the community, the schools and community organizations,” said Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy at Americans for the Arts. “They’re embracing the community and then the community is in turn embracing those arts organizations.”
Smart marketing nurtures the relationship.
Seraphic Fire allocates about 11 percent of its $1.4 million annual budget to marketing, which includes direct mail, newsletters and promotional spots on public radio station WLRN, says communications manager Mike Burgess.
“We use some [of the funds] to experiment,” Burgess said. “If we’re experimenting, we’ll make sure to include a custom URL and phone number; that way we can track the response to whatever we’re doing.”
Tracking and analyzing those experiments is key, he says.
“Before you even start, you need to figure out how you’re going to determine if what you’re trying out was successful. You then need to backtrack and see what the results were. It’s kind of a corporate approach to the nonprofit sector.”
Adds Quigley: “We’re constantly willing to reinvent how we do things and we’re always saying, ‘What is the next step? Where can we go from here?’ ”
Boldness and flexibility are among Seraphic Fire’s strengths, says Dennis Scholl, vice president of the arts at the Knight Foundation.
“They are brave artistically, they are dynamic in their choices of what they present, and I think that they are flexible around the way that they work,” he said. “They aren’t afraid to try things. If something is working, they really go with it.”
Choir and orchestra members are contract workers, eliminating the cost of a full-time roster of musicians. The organization spends 50 percent of its budget on its concert programs and 6 percent on the Miami Choral Academy, Burgess says.
Seraphic Fire also manages its costs by keeping its staff to five members, including the artistic director and one part-time employee. The Miami Choral Academy has two full-time employees and five part-timers.
Everyone involved with Seraphic Fire “has a personal stake in seeing this succeed,” says Quigley. “Every member of our team works tirelessly and believes in what we do and believes that what we do is the best of what we can do.”
From it first season, the group has strived to forge a personal connection with its audience. The boyishly charming Quigley prefaces each performance with remarks that put the music in context and listeners in the loop. After each concert, director and performers linger at the exit to chat up and thank their fans.
“Seraphic Fire has charismatic and well-regarded artistic leadership,” says Brett Egan, director of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. “And when you develop a persona around the director of a musical institution, it helps. It’s much easier to fall for an individual than it is to fall for an ensemble, if we’re thinking strategically.”
Egan also credits “the Fonz factor,” named for the hipster character Henry Winkler played on the TV sitcom Happy Days (1974–1984).
“It’s an act of creating a sense that ‘I need to belong to the family of that organization,’ ” he said. “In our work, that is really the most challenging concept to convey and it’s difficult to execute. …The Fonz was always where the party was. He had the bike, the leather jacket; everyone wanted to be around him. That’s what we try to do with cultural organizations.”